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The Impossible Dream

Speaker: The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph

September 12, 2021

Sermon, Sunday September 19, 2021
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Mark 9:30-37, NRSV
The Impossible Dream

For 40 episodes, 3 seasons, and counting, Netflix and Vox Media have produced a fascinating, high-quality series called Explained.  Each episode, one released each week lasting only 16-26 minutes, focuses on a different topic ranging from the history of capital and money to royalty, pandemics, sugar, oil, climate change, hurricanes, billionaires, the gender pay gap, and many other issues and problems. 

At first, I liked this short, simple, and digestibly erudite series that comes out at the start of every week.  Each containing a new bit of learning, but I noticed something about it the other day that I hadn’t before. I noticed something about the pedagogical approach and editorial formula that shifted my feeling.

It made me rethink the whole series and the premise that a whole complicated topic area can be even marginally or summarily “explained” in 16-26 minutes. While entertaining and engaging, what do we miss with this model of quick learning? Is this also what we want from our news reports and our activism and our religion? Have we come to expect clear conclusions and easy good vs. bad? Does pessimism sell more advertising?

Here is the formula: In 16 to 26 minutes, a giant problem or question is posed, experts are quoted and interviewed, graphics are generated, and a great and inescapable conclusion is reached. Almost 90% of the time the conclusion is overwhelming and insurmountable.   While I rarely have any factual disagreement with the Vox/ Netflix Explained series, I noticed with the episode about capital and money and the episodes about Climate Change that they intentionally leave you feeling shocked, overwhelmed, and hopeless. These short shows do not motivate action and creativity and new (hopeful) thinking in us the viewers but rather rage and anger or…worst of all… despair.

The way they get these episodes down to 16-26 minutes, like in the news headlines and many sermons, is that the moderates, the optimists, and those creating new promising practices for change are often left out. That would make things too hard to explain in 16 minutes. That would take away some of the money-making drama away.  The drama, the part that makes it entertaining is that we are left completely overwhelmed. What can I possibly do? Do any of my recycling efforts matter? How can I make a difference for love and wholeness when there is so much bias, hate, and unpleasantness? What is there for me to do? We might be scared away from innovation.  The scale, the scope, the entrenchment, the enculturation, the history, the politics, and the obvious ways forward all seem like too much when framed as already explained. 

To explain is defined as, “to make (an idea, situation, or problem) clear to someone by describing it in more detail or revealing relevant facts or ideas.”[1]  In light of how hopeless so many issues we have seem to be right now, let me try and explain hope. For the Christian tradition, hope is a central theological notion. Hope. Hope in the face of the impossible, the unlikely, or the prevailing winds of the status quo. Hope for new consensus. Hope for learning from each other rather than explaining things to each other.

Christians are called to maintain hope for a better world for all people even if (or especially if) compromise seems impossible. After some meditation and prayer, I came up with this definition for myself and my own journey. Hope is a collective refusal to accept the impossibility of something better than the status quo and the towering demoralizing effect of the now and the how we got here. Hope is a one-word Visioning Statement for people of all faiths working to “fight hate and secure justice.”

Friends, as people of faith in the world, I am worried that our completely explained living has become hopeless for new ways of being, living, and finding hope. This doesn’t mean that we should wish ourselves or others ignorance or obliviousness.  But on the right and the left, we are being asked to accept simple explanations for complex geopolitical, global, personal, societal problems. We explain rather than learn. We explain rather than listen. We explain rather than grow. With 16-minute-long video lectures, we declare ourselves instant experts. Explained is a fun little series, and I will keep watching it for entertainment. It has some good learnings in it, but we cannot let the simple explanations or the why keep us from the hope or the what is next!?

Our Lectionary Reading today comes from the Gospel According to Mark, Chapter 9 and is filled with Jesus exploring paradox, the impossible, and the irrational. It brings us to the heart of hope—aspirations for a better world beyond explanation. In each of the four Gospel accounts, because they were written by different communities of people, for four different places, and at four different times, Jesus and his way of communicating, personality, and purpose is portrayed differently.

Studying the text this way is called by academics the historical-critical hermeneutical method to Scripture. The Gospel of Mark is a particularly fun narrative because it is the oldest, wildest, and Jesus is generally in a bad mood with his disciples. He constantly has to explain things to them, and they rarely follow his illogical declarations. It is often viewed as a comedy of errors in miscommunication, but modern scholars see a coherent intention. Modern scholars tell us that Mark is actually a coherent embrace of mystery, irony, and life beyond easy explanation.

One of my professors in Divinity School at Emory was a legendary scholar named Dr. Carl Holladay. I was in his final Christian Scriptures class before retirement. He had a dry sense of humor that also comes through in his writing, and we knew this because he used his own book as our sole textbook, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament, as his course material. 

In it he writes about Mark and our passage for today, “No Gospel explores the mystery of faith [and hope]…more profoundly than Mark….From start to finish…[in the Gospel of Mark] most conspicuously, Jesus’ own disciples—the Twelve and the larger circle of disciples—fail to penetrate the mystery of Jesus’ true identity and mission, even though they were constantly with him and taught by him privately. This is the paradox Mark relentlessly explores: being close to Jesus fails to ensure faith; it even prevents it. Those who heard his teachings most directly understood it the least. Especially was this true of his thrice-repeated prediction of his suffering, death, and resurrection. It is in this sense that Jesus is an elusive figure in Mark. He performs dramatic miracles, then silences those healed or those who witness the healing. He speaks in parable not to clarify [or explain] but to obscure. His favorite way of referring to himself—Son of Man—is utterly baffling, as the continued scholarly debate shows. Thus, what is done in plain view turns out to be quite unclear, which accounts for Mark’s highly developed sense of the ironic.”[2]  We are living in a very Gospel of Mark time! God is still speaking, but we are trying to make everything explainable, digestible, and simple right vs. left. Thus, what is done in plain view turns out to be quite unclear, which accounts for a highly developed sense of the ironic.

Chapter 9: 30-37 can be seen as three parts that make a whole. First, it is important that they are passing through Galilee. Here, at a turning point in the text, Jesus returns to where it all began to make a big announcement. This symbolizes a wholeness and a cycle within the story. In Scripture, geography matters in narrative flow and meaning making. The return to Galilee suggests the importance of this moment. It is liminal. Upon passing through Galilee, he starts to talk about the conclusion of the story and what really matters. Jesus talks about his own death and life in a paradox of rebirth. The Bible then reads, “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Notice, that it never says that he bothers to explain it to them.  Lesson 1: It is okay to be confused. Life, God, and life and death are confusing. Sometimes, we just have to leave it at that. There is liberation and hope in knowing it is okay to sit with questions unanswered.

Secondly, the disciples try to out-explain to each other who is the greatest and why each deserves to be the favorite. I am sure good data was presented, but Jesus isn’t interested. Instead, he offers them a second paradox: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." The hope is not found in traditional sources of power but in a completely new way of seeing relationship. What matters is care for one another more than proofs of power or rightness.

Third, when they still don’t get it, he points to the children—the next generations saying, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me." This is what matters. First, learn to live with uncertainty. Second, caring for each other and paradox of power matters more than explaining who is right. Third, remember what matters and what is at stake.

Hope explained is simple— let’s allow for ambiguity and complexity again… for irony as people, as neighbors, as friends, and as family. That allows room for hope. As people of faith and multigenerational community, we are called to lean into the message of Mark, to allow for uncertainty, and to not have to explain everything into the simplest of terms and dogmas.   Karl Barth once wrote, “Our knowledge of God begins in all seriousness with the knowledge of the hiddenness of God.”  Blaise Pascal, 15th Century French Catholic Theologian, wrote, “A religion which denies that God is hidden is not true.”

I hear these voices of the past, and I think they were also reading Mark. I have always found the Gospel of Mark to be the most hopeful because it allows for a world of the possible, the improbable, the other, the impossible, the not yet discovered, the unexplained, the new, the ironic, the question, and the inverse to emerge. It is completely unexplained. And in that there is hope for us to matter, to find purpose, and to do a new thing. 

A friend recently introduced me to a new song. It resonated deeply for this moment and with the call to a return to hope in the face of deep pessimism, overwhelmingly complex problems, and what feels like insurmountable obstacles for our ethics and for humanity. We cannot give up, we cannot stop dreaming. The quest for a better world is not concluded or easily summarized in 16 to 26 minutes.

We might should adopt a little of that Jesus-like paradoxical thinking that might, maybe, perhaps have the ability to make new things possible again. Maybe, in the face of everything being explained… (a done deal) we can find hope again. While written as part of the 20th Century play, The Man of La Mancha, it has taken on its own identity and meaning. It was the campaign song for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign and his favorite song, was sung by Aretha Franklin at Rosa Parks funeral (a version of the song I recommend on YouTube[3]), it was sung for President Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama by Cynthia Erivo in their honor at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2017[4], and was one of the songs of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. It has been sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Josh Groban to Cher, Susan Boyle, The Temptations, and Liberace.[5] The song, “The Impossible Dream” or “The Quest” cries out with hope in the face of what is decidedly, empirically, certainly impossible. It says, no, to allowing 16 minute videos with all of the facts make us despondent and unwilling to take action:

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go
To right the un-rightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star
This is my quest To follow that star
No matter how hopeless No matter how far.
To fight for the right Without question or pause,
To be willing to march Into hell for a heavenly cause.
And I know if I'll only be true To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm When I'm laid to my rest
And the world will be better for this
And one person, sore and covered with scars
Still strove with their last ounce of courage
To fight the unbeatable foe
To reach the unreachable star

Can we end gun violence? Can we work to get along with our neighbors of different political backgrounds? Can we support new technology and ideas to help us be resilient in the time of climate change? Can interfaith community thrive? Can we end incidents of bias-motived hate? Can we teach love and compassion and understanding to our kids? Will we try? Will we bother? What can happen next?

For 39 episodes, 3 seasons, and counting Netflix and Vox have produced a fascinating, high production series called Explained. Each episode, one released each week, lasts only 16-24 minutes focuses on a different topic ranging from the history of Capital and Money to “Royalty,” “Pandemics,” Sugar, Oil, Climate Change, Hurricanes, Billionaires, the gender pay gap, and many other issues and problems. We need things explained to us. We need to understand the scope of the problems, and yet… there is so much hope left to leverage. People of faith, of the Jesus of Mark, remember this… this is… Hope: Explained!

[2] Carl R. Holladay, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament: Interpreting the Message and Meaning of Jesus Christ (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 121-122.  

The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph

Associate Minister

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